Last week, Cambodia’s foreign minister Hor Namhong suggested that Cambodia would continue to seek to be a mediator in South China Sea disputes between China and the claimant states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“Cambodia wants to mediate in order to reduce the tense atmosphere between ASEAN and China because we discern that no solution can be found without talking to each other,” Hor Namhong said according to Voice of America.
For those who follow developments in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia closely, the suggestion of Cambodia as a mediator in the disputes is a rather curious one. True, the country is not an ASEAN claimant unlike Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. But mediation is a tall order even for more capable Southeast Asian states like Indonesia, despite its status as primus inter pares within ASEAN and its role – led by former Indonesian diplomat Hasjim Djalal – in informally conducting workshops on the issue since the 1990s (See: “No, Indonesia’s South China Sea Approach Has Not Changed”). The case for Cambodia assuming such a role does not appear to be a very strong one by comparison.
Furthermore, the failure of ASEAN and China to make any diplomatic headway in the South China Sea disputes has never really been because of the lack of “talking to each other,” as Cambodia’s foreign minister seemed to suggest. The real problem, long recognized by those familiar with the issue, is Chinese foot-dragging on measures like a binding code of conduct (CoC) on the South China Sea, as well as efforts designed to disrupt and undermine the ASEAN unity required to reach a constructive solution. (See: “China’s Plan for ASEAN-China Maritime Cooperation”).